ACT schools have been involved in their version of Independent Public Schools.
Recently the AEUACT ran a survey across the 23 schools involved in the roll out of autonomy. Nearly 200 responses from school leaders and teachers were received. The data is concerning.
A “School Empowerment” survey was completed by almost two hundred teachers and school leaders across the 23 eACT (“Empowered”) schools.
The rationale for increased autonomy for schools, despite almost two decades-worth of international and national evidence to the contrary, has been that it will improve student results. Less than one in five (19%) teaching staff in the autonomy trial schools agree.
Members in so-called Empowered schools are telling us that increased autonomy brings with it significant threats.
More than half (52%) believe autonomy has a negative impact on a school’s financial management, while only 15% believe financial management is improving.
Almost six in ten (57%) believe autonomy has a negative effect on staff morale, while only 13% believe the impact is positive.
The Education and Training Directorate (ETD) has been trialling over 18 months an average cost budget model, whereby schools are assigned a budget according to the average “cost” of a teacher. Schools with a more experienced staff are now seen as being “over budget” and will need to address this by cost-cutting decisions which potentially have little to do with the educational needs of students. Almost two thirds (64%) of the staff in these schools say this way of calculating a school’s staffing budget has a negative impact on a school’s ability to pay teacher salaries and relief teacher costs. Less than 6% think it is a good idea.
Furthermore, 54% believe the average cost budget model has a negative impact on the ability of a school to select the right mix of teachers to meet student need. This rationale was one of autonomy’s major selling points. Teachers aren’t sold.
Every year teachers are asked to do more and they have to battle to stay focused on their students. 54% see teacher workloads increasing, while only 8% see them decreasing.
A significant number believe autonomy increases workload with regard to financial management (50%), general administration (53%), human resource management (53%) and compliance processes (48%). The last figure gives weight to suspicions that autonomy simply gives schools and principals the “freedom to obey”. A tiny number of respondents believe autonomy decreases workload.
73% believe school principal workloads will increase. Is this the “freedom to work harder”?
Victorian schools have been “autonomous” the longest. They are now the most poorly funded schools in the country. A massive 71% of members believe autonomy will reduce government funding to schools over time. Less than 11% believe schools will see better funding under autonomy.
Almost two thirds (63%) believe that under autonomy they receive less support from the Directorate.
More than half believe principal and teacher permanency is under threat. Education is already the most casualised profession in Australia.
Almost two thirds (63%) can see a negative impact with regard to equity across the system. The Gonski Report into School Funding recently highlighted Australia’s lack of educational equity as requiring urgent attention. Is autonomy the way to do it?
Too often in recent years the profession has been ignored with respect to education reform. It is time for governments to start to listen to those who are in schools about what is good for schools.
The survey was completed by 17 of the 23 principals and 16 deputy principals across the 23 eACT schools.
School leaders are, in the main supportive of the balance that has been struck between the Union and ETD with regard to the transfer rights of existing staff and the capacity to select teachers locally.
But according to those best placed to know, our school leaders, the average cost budget model has been an unmitigated disaster. 69% of principals and 75% of deputies say it has a negative impact on their school.
All but one principal and all but two deputies in these schools say autonomy increases workload in financial management.
All but one principal and all but one deputy see an increase in workload in human resource management.
88% of principals and 88% of deputies say autonomy increases compliance processes. Is this just “the freedom to obey”?
77% of principals and 88% of deputy principals see administrative workloads increasing.
Every minute spent performing administrative tasks, managing the books or meeting compliance requirements is a minute in which our educational leaders are not performing the educational leadership which our students need.
82% of principals believe autonomy will increase their workload and a whopping 81% of deputy principals believe the workload of their principal colleagues will SIGNIFICANTLY increase.
Almost half of the principals (47%) and two thirds (67%) of deputy principals surveyed believe autonomy has a negative impact on a schools’ financial management. 59% of principals and 81% of deputy principals believe that funding to schools will be reduced over time under autonomy. Most school leaders believe they will receive less support from the Directorate.
56% of deputy principals describe a negative impact on staff morale.
69% of deputy principals believe autonomy will harm equity across our system. In other words, there will be winners and losers.
It may be appropriate to have winners and losers in business, real estate or sport, but having losers in our schools is both unfair and unwise. This nation will be more cohesive, prosperous and productive if all students are given what they need to succeed.
Mark McConville, the principal of Toronto High School, appeared on ABC TV’s Four Corners earlier this year as a strong supporter of the devolving of power to principals, saying that the autonomy pilot showed that the Education Department could “actually trust its principals to manage, and do the right thing and make a difference.”
Now he has recanted, saying in May: “We don’t want to be saddled with the staffing budget, with the potential for cost-shifting and cost-cutting [from the Department to schools]. And we don’t want to go from making educational decisions to making financial decisions.”
According to an article by Andrew Stevenson in the Sydney Morning Herald [29 May 2012,]; Mr McConville “is worried more that his time will be consumed by management tasks, eating into his role as an educational leader.” He said: “As part of the 47-school pilot [across NSW] what allowed us to do things differently was additional investment.”
Across the country, financial incentives (usually about $50,000 per school) are being provided to early-adopting or trial schools to embrace the autonomy agenda.
The problem is that the financial incentives soon dry up as soon as a government decides it has other priorities, and schools are forced to accept the increased workload and responsibility with the same resources as before, or even fewer. In New York, for example, schools have lost 13.7 per cent of their funding since its system was devolved in 2007.
Another NSW principal, Villawood East Public School’s Kathy Deacon, said in March: “When I went for my interview as a principal I had to argue very strongly my credentials as an educational leader ... I didn’t sign up to become a cost-cutting arm of government.”
Reports are coming out of Victoria of a principal shortage. People are being deterred from applying for leadership roles due to, among other things, a lack of support from the Education Department, punishing 60+ hour working weeks and insufficient pay.
Three prestigious public schools in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs – Laburnum Primary in Blackburn, Camberwell South Primary and Auburn South Primary – have, in recent weeks, not been able to fill their principal position as there were so few applicants. An article in The Age [9 July 2012] says that “a 2004 report found 80 per cent of Victorian principals had high stress levels, compared with 44 per cent of the general workforce ... and [n]early half had a medical condition linked to work.”
Victorian schools have been operating with a relatively high degree of autonomy since it was introduced by former Premier Jeff Kennett in 1993. Since that time, Victorian schools have become the most poorly funded in the country, with Victorian schools spending less per child on education than occurs in any other state.
More than 94% of the education dollar goes directly to schools, and 90% of that is on staff salaries. This means that productivity savings can only mean job cuts and higher class sizes. Since Kennett’s “Schools of the Future” were created in 1993, the outcomes of Victorian students have not improved and, on average, remain markedly below those of students in the ACT.
On 1 July this year, Victorian principals lost 69 regional network leader (RNL) positions. RNLs were responsible for resource-sharing to improve student learning in their networks, and they supported principals on issues involving difficult students and families, staffing, and legal, OHS, maintenance and budget problems.
The Department’s own website states that RNLs play a “critical role”. Now principals will be on their own. Principals have described the Government’s decision as “very depressing” and “an absolute disaster”. One asks: “Who will principals go to for support and advice with difficult student and family issues, and legal subpoenas?
Sure, you can find another principal for a shoulder to cry on, but they are very busy too; they’ve got their own issues and often won’t have the answers.”
In Victoria, according to the recent report by former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe into insecure work, 58 per cent of teachers in their first five years of teaching are on contract and not permanently employed.
In Western Australia, as at September 2011, 47 per cent of teachers in their so-called “Independent Public Schools” (IPS) were employed on fixed term contracts compared with 39 per cent in traditional public schools. (Also IPS schools have fewer school assistants.) (Education Review, March 2012)
Most workers prefer the security of permanent employment rather than the uncertainty of contract employment, yet teachers in states with high levels of school autonomy are increasingly becoming temporary, dispensable workers.
On 24 July, the ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations passed the following motions:
The ACT Council of P&C Associations believes that the Education and Training Directorate (ETD) should stop any further action to introduce school autonomy until issues are fully addressed. (Such issues include the lack of presentation of any evidence by ETD or the Government that autonomy actually works.)
We call on the Minister and ETD to ... consider that the $550million being spent nationally [on “Empowering Local Schools”] could be better targeted to areas of disadvantage as outlined in the Gonski Report.
Since these motions were passed the P&C has publicly demanded an independent review into the model.
Devolution has been occurring across Western nations for more than two decades, so there is much evidence to draw upon. Here is a sample:
Bullock and Thomas (1994 and 1997) on devolution in the UK:
Bullock and Thomas also noted that the majority of UK head teachers (principals) making a positive assessment concerning learning improvements were in schools which had experienced an increase in funding as a result of greater local schools management.
Elmore (1993) on the introduction of school-based management [SBM] in the United States:
Summers and Johnson (1996) in their meta–analysis of 70 studies on the impact of school-based management:
“...there is little evidence to support the notion that SBM is effective in increasing student performance. There are very few quantitative studies, the studies are not statistically rigorous and the evidence of positive results is either weak or nonexistent.”
Cathy Wylie (1997) on Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand:
“The reforms have been less successful in improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups ... resource gaps remain evident, particularly for schools serving low income and/or Maori children.”
Leithwood and Menzies (1998) in their meta-analysis of 83 empirical studies of devolution and the effects of each variant on students and others involved in New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Spain and Wales:
Whitty, Power and Halpin, Devolution and Choice in Education. The School, The State and The Market (ACER 1998) examines devolution and choice policies in education in England and Wales, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden and the actual impact of these policies on school managers, teachers, students and local communities, including equity issues in systems of education where increased responsibility is delegated to the level of the school.
They conclude that there is no strong evidence to support the educational benefits claimed by advocates for such policies but rather that:
...the devolution of decision-making to the school level has shown no necessary consequences for enhancing teacher autonomy and professionalism and appears to be making little difference to the outcome of student learning ...Case studies celebrating the success of individual self-managing schools overlook the impact of their success on neighbouring schools...recent research suggests that the fragmentation of bureaucratic systems of education is leading to a polarisation of provision, with “good” schools being rewarded and able to choose their students – usually those who are academically and socially advantaged – while “failing” schools are thrown into a cycle of decline from which they, and their students – usually the least socially advantaged – find it difficult to recover... If equity is to remain an important consideration in education policy, new ways have to be found of avoiding the divisive effects of choice and devolution.
Devolution supporter Brian Caldwell (1998), following a comprehensive international survey:
There is no doubt that, while factors underpinning the movement to self-managing schools are many and varied, there has always been an expectation that they will make a contribution to improved outcomes for students. There is also no doubt that evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between self-management and improved outcomes is minimal.
The UK National Audit Office October 2011 report into financial management in local authority maintained schools highlights the impact of Government funding cuts on schools and local authorities and confirms that cost-cutting remains at the heart of local school management in the UK. John Bangs, the visiting professor at the University of London’s Institute of Education and senior consultant for Education International, wrote in 2011:
“The Government’s expectation that schools can achieve savings of £1 billion through reducing procurement and back-office costs has been exposed for the unjustified assumption that it is. Schools will be forced instead ... to cut spending on staff – their most valuable resource. ...These attacks on our schools come at a time when we need to invest in high quality education to restore economic growth. The National Audit Office also confirms that local authorities are reducing their capacity to monitor and support schools due to insufficient resources. This will inevitably have a detrimental impact on schools and, ultimately, the standard of education children and young people receive.”
Read the studies...
New Zealand – no overall improvement;
Charter schools – mixed evidence; some better, some worse and some with no change. The major national studies show no overall improvement. The CREDO national charter school study is the gold standard study on charter schools.
Available at: credo.stanford.edu/research-reports.html.
See also a new study at
Free schools – mixed evidence; summary article at
UK Foundation schools – no improvement;
UK Academies – mixed evidence: pro study at
con study at
OECD research has found that in the vast majority of countries participating in PISA 2009, including in Australia, there was no significant difference between student achievement in schools with a high degree of autonomy in hiring teachers and over the school budget and in schools with lower autonomy.
It should be noted that in support of its claims, the Federal Government cites statistical analysis by the OECD which shows that combining school autonomy with the publication of individual school results increases student achievement. However, the impact is trivial. Students in higher autonomy schools achieve only 2.6 points higher on the PISA scale than those in an average autonomy school, which amounts to less than 10% of a learning year.
A review of the research evidence published in the Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy found that the outcomes from school autonomy are “mixed”, “generally small”, “not greatly encouraging” and “have disappointed”. See Plank & Smith article in Ladd & Fiske 2008:
Prominent academic Stephen Lamb has examined a large body of research on the relationship between market-driven reforms and achievement and concludes that:
The school reforms driving the growing diversity in schools over the last decade have intensified the gaps between schools serving the rich and those serving the poor, gaps marked by growing differences in school size, student intake, resources and achievement.
The Barnett-led WA Government has created more than 100 “Independent Public Schools” (IPS). An independent study in July 2011 by the Curtin University Graduate School of Business found that the drive behind IPS is primarily financial and there is little evidence that it will benefit school students. It also found that:
The O’Farrell Government’s “Local Schools, Local Decisions” is highly contentious and has attracted criticism from the New South Wales Secondary Principals’ Council:
The NSWSPC holds research and information from other OECD nations to show there is, at best, a variable relationship between School-Based Management and the results achieved by students in PISA results. International school improvement and improved student outcome cannot be attributed to SBM.
OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 cross-country correlation analysis found that education systems which provide schools with greater autonomy with regard to staffing and school budgets do not achieve higher results in reading. It concluded emphatically that “greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance” and that “school autonomy in resource allocation is not related to performance at the system level.” The analysis found that school governance factors incorporating local autonomy, competition between schools and the presence of private schools account for only one per cent of the variation in student performance between schools across all OECD countries.
Productivity Commission Schools Workforce Research Report:
[A]llowing schools greater autonomy has the potential to exacerbate inequalities unless all schools are adequately resourced.
Dr Ben Levin, Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy on decentralisation and school based decision making:
Simply saying that we are going to turn everything over to individual schools, as has happened in England and New Zealand, will result in what you got in England and New Zealand … which is no real improvement across the whole system. Some schools get better; some schools get worse. The system as a whole doesn’t change. So these drivers [of school improvement] are the wrong ones …
Education International’s Background Paper for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, New York, March 2012:
School systems cannot be successful if principals are given total autonomy to make all the decisions affecting their schools. Schools need external support and to work with each other and their communities. Public education systems publically provided are the best way of both providing support and engaging communities in education.
This summit was organised by the US Department of Education, the OECD and Education International. It was attended by education ministers from 23 of the most educationally successful countries in the world. The Australian Government did not send a representative.
John Bangs was at the summit. He wrote:
In contrast [to other OECD countries], the complete autonomy given to academies and free schools [by the UK government] was exactly where the other countries at the summit did not want to be.
And even the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen has major doubts!
On issues associated with transferring more power over staffing and budgets to school principals in a bid to lift student performance, Jensen recently wrote:
Well I think if you look at Victoria and around the world actually, there’s not a huge amount of evidence that says school autonomy has a great impact on student learning because it’s really not the end game. ... Overall what we see is that it’s very hard to identify the connection between autonomy and student performance.
Making Treasuries happy?
Giving principals and teachers the FREEDOM TO OBEY?!
The University of Nottingham’s Pat Thomson has written:
Devolution and delegation have given principals in England more power than ever to run their schools as they see fit, and yet league tables, high stakes testing, a national curriculum and school inspections mean they have never been more constrained.
In Australia today, we have a national curriculum, national testing and five letters of the alphabet (A to E) with which to assess children as young as six. Yet the research tells us there is benefit in increased teacher autonomy over curriculum and assessment, and also tells us that autonomy over staffing and budgets does little or nothing at all for our children! Do we have it the wrong way round?
In the very popular book Finnish Lessons, Finnish Education expert Pasi Sahlberg wrote:
In simple terms, the current acolytes of principal power and devolution are peddling a giant con.
On ABC TV’s Lateline he said:
...the most important thing in this school autonomy in Finland is that all the schools are both responsible and also free to design their own curriculum as they wish, based on the quite loose national curriculum framework. So financing and managing the school is one thing, but I think... using teachers’ knowledge and skills that we have in our system to design how they want teaching and learning to take place is the most important thing ... [and] frankly speaking, one of the keys also to this favourable situation that we have internationally.
Queensland Government Submission to the Gonski Review into School Funding:
Research indicates that teaching quality and school leadership drive student outcomes far more than adjusting structural or governance arrangements in delivering education ... While the PISA report found that overall there is no clear relationship between the degree of autonomy in allocating resources and a school system’s overall performance, it did find that school autonomy over design of curricula and assessment is a key characteristic of successful school systems.
Every student in every public school deserves the guarantee of: